After being told in Israel that Europeans were too biased to be Mideast peacemakers, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook traveled to Syria on Wednesday - where he was told Europe must play an even greater role.
Europe's influence is vital to keeping up pressure on Israel, Syrian newspapers declared the morning of Cook's arrival.Following a stormy one-day stop in Israel, Cook got a much warmer welcome in Syria. He was met at the Damascus airport by Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, then went into talks with President Hafez Assad on Israel's occupation of south Lebanon.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu snubbed Cook - canceling a planned dinner and joint news conference - in protest of the Briton's meeting with Palestinian lawmakers at a much-disputed Jewish housing project in east Jerusalem.
Israel complained the meeting aided Palestinian claims to east Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state.
Cook - saying he represents the 15-nation European Union - is in the Middle East to encourage peace talks, which have been stalled since Israel broke ground on the housing project.
In Wednesday's meeting with Assad, the two leaders discussed Israel's recent offer to withdraw from the enclave it occupies in southern Lebanon in exchange for security guarantees. So far, both Lebanon and Syria - which strongly influences Lebanon - have rejected the offer.
"We discussed how progress could be achieved toward ensuring a withdrawal of troops from Lebanon" while implementing U.N. resolutions demanding an unconditional pullback, Cook said.
"That is why I am here today - and why I am going from here to Beirut," he said. "The question is how we can make sure the security . . . is maintained in the circumstances of withdrawal."
Israel keeps troops in southern Lebanon to guard against cross-border guerrilla attacks.
In Syria, government-run newspapers rejected Israeli demands that Cook and other Europeans stay out of Israeli-Palestinian affairs.